While writing about how Narendra Modi is filling the vacuum of leadership in the country, Vir Sanghvi wrote, ‘there is an iron law in global politics: when things are going well, people do not worry too much about leadership. They want non-controversial politicians who stay out of their way and let them get on with their lives without needless conflict. But when things go wrong, people look for the opposite. They want visible leadership. And though they say they want to be inspired, what they are really looking for is reassurance.’
Manmohan Singh did not change throughout his two terms as the prime minister. During UPA-I, India had a quite stable economy and things were going reasonably smoothly. And at that time, Singh was perceived as a cool, calm, and composed leader. However, when the laundry list of frauds and economic crisis gripped UPA-II, the same Singh became weak, submissive, and indecisive. He failed to adapt and change according to the circumstances.
What is most most striking about Singh’s term is that the length of his tenure is inversely proportional to the decisions he took. The nuclear deal in 2008 remains his greatest and, perhaps, only significant contribution as a prime minister. And his tenure has been the longest since Pandit Nehru. As Ramachandra Guha said, while assessing the prime minister, ‘It is hard to think of a real, substantial achievement of his term in office.’
Singh was unique, in a sense that he was never a member of the Lok Sabha. He was parachuted to the Rajya Sabha and, many believe, was handpicked by Sonia Gandhi as the prime minister. His image of a renowned economist and a clean politician was maximised by the Congress party. The most tragic part was that he was often the scapegoat. While the Congress president took all the credit for populist schemes like NREGA and Food Security Bill, Singh was loathed for the scams. He is the one to be blamed for it as his stony silence regarding 2G scam and Coalgate was astounding. Even though a bit of embellishment cannot be ruled out from Sanjay Baru’s book, one cannot deny the fact that Singh, despite holding the supreme position, did not have the last word in many important matters. The burden of keeping the family in good humour palpably hung around his neck. Yet, it is Singh who will tragically go down as the prime minister who held the office during India’s most corrupt government.
Having said that, one cannot turn a blind eye towards his contribution to the Indian economy. Economic liberalisation took place in India in 1991, was brought under Singh's term as the finance minister from 1991 to 1996. He was the architect of the 1991 reforms that liberalised Indian economy and PV Narasimha Rao, too, unconditionally supported him.
When Singh became the finance minister in 1991, India's economy was in a doldrums. The country was burdened with unsustainable fiscal deficit of around 8.5% of GDP. Singh began by simplifying the tax system. Many controls and regulation on the industry were removed, which showed the door to Permit Raj and gave a free rein to entrepreneurs. As a result, the productivity that was seen in the Indian industry was unprecedented. Even during the global recession in 21st century, India survived because of Singh’s vision. "I said to him (PV Narsimha Rao) it is possible that we will still collapse, but there is a chance that if we take bold measures we may turn around, and that, I said, is an opportunity. We must convert this crisis into an opportunity to build a new India, to do things which many people before us have thought and said should be done, but somehow were never done," Singh had said in an interview to PBS in 2001.
Even an opposition leader like Arun Jaitley opined that Singh was ‘unquestionably a very good finance minister and a man of scholarship’. Singh had quoted Victor Hugo while presenting his budget in 1994-95: ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.’
He was always a good bureaucrat, but never a leader. The good work that he did as a finance minister was not taken forward and ‘The Human Face’ of economic policies, which Singh himself had spoken about could not be achieved when he became prime minister. UPA-I failed in doing so because of the Left pressures and UPA-II, courtesy populist schemes taking front seat.
As he bids adieu in 2014, Manmohan Singh’s career, as a whole, would be described as ‘What could have been’. Had he stood up to the Gandhi family and shown some mettle, history would have judged him a lot kindly.